One of the central characters in Pasolini’s 1966 film The Hawks and The Sparrows is a talking crow, who we are told is ‘a left-wing intellectual from an earlier time. Pasolini’s crow lives on Karl Marx Street and bores his interlocutors with stories of class antagonism between the hawks and sparrows of the film’s title. The film begins with the journey of Totò and Ninetto, father and son, who meet the crow along their way to collect the rent and pay off debts. The crow-intellectual tells Totò and Ninetto a story about two friars who are tasked with learning the language of the birds so they can deliver the Gospel – that love conquers all and their quarrels should be put aside. These two friars spend months learning the language of the hawks and the sparrows, only to succeed and find their message is not well received. 


By the end of Totò and Ninetto’s journey, the two would rather eat the crow than listen to what he has to say. Out of hunger, they do just that, and we are left to wonder, What lesson is contained in this allegory about a bird who talks and two populist figures who don’t want to listen? One film scholar’s interpretation holds that Totò and Ninetto are driven more by the bodily pangs of hunger and lust than the intellectually inclined forces of language and rationality.1 I am reminded here of a quotation by painter Barnett Newman: aesthetics is for me what ornithology must be for the birds.2 I take his statement to mean that birds and artists must not be very intellectual. But Newman must not have been thinking of Pasolini’s crow. If he had, he might have tried to figure out what was contained in the crow’s story. Why was it so hard for the friars to learn the language of the birds, and why couldn’t the crow get Totò and Ninetto to listen? It is these questions that preoccupied Pasolini around 1965–66: questions about the nature of art-as-language, and the role of the artist-intellectual in society. 


When Pasolini entered the fray of semiotics, he issued an apology for his own amateur status and announced his observations as heretical because they attempted to build on Saussure while misusing the semiotician’s ideas. Pasolini proposed, to amplify and modify the notion of language, presumably to fit with his assertion that reality is, in the final analysis, nothing more than cinema in nature.3 I will begin where Pasolini began, with the question whether film is a language and, if so, how it works? I will also run with the premise of his film The Hawks and the Sparrows, that birds can speak, or at least use language, which leads me to a third question: If film is a language, and birds can speak, can birds make movies?

Pasolini and his contemporaries first tried to determine whether film had something like a ‘total language system, which would involve a storehouse of language or a vocabulary from which to draw, and a set of rules for combining images together.4 Christian Metz, Pasolini, and Umberto Eco all agreed that film was in fact a language, though not necessarily a language system.

From Saussure, the difference between language (langage) and language system (langue) came down to the question of codification. Can the language of cinema be codified and understood through an underlying structure? Or is it something that exists without a code? If cinema was structured by a code, it ought to have some storehouse from which to draw images, and a grammar for combining these images.


The film theorist and the film-maker had competing understandings of how film was a language. First, Christian Metz argued that film was a language but not a language system because it did not have a second articulation.5 That is, if the language system is characterised by one’s ability to select words from the storehouse of language, and words are made up of even smaller units called letters, what would be the equivalent in film? Metz argued that even the best film analysis could not subdivide the shot into smaller units.

Pasolini, however, disagreed. Each gesture, object, or element in a shot could be considered a unit as words are, selected from an infinite reality and combined together in a single shot. These smaller units inside each shot were the second articulation of cinema.6

Finally, semiotician Umberto Eco insisted on a third articulation in cinema, made up not only of the shot and the gestures or objects in the shot, but also of the smaller, abstract elements like curves or shadows that are meaningless in themselves until they are seen as part of a larger signifying unit.7 The effort to establish semiotics was intended as a science of signs. Therefore, serious scholars like Eco rejected Pasolini’s position as unscientific. Pasolini would gladly accept his status as a heretic to rigorous semiotics, but in time the process of inventing cinema’s language became more pressing, and for that reason Pasolini’s theory outlives the theories of his contemporaries.


Pasolini’s theory of a cinema language focused on the language of cinema as a signifying practice, and not a total system.8 For Pasolini, the storehouse of language is reality – the world in front of the camera – along with images from memories and dreams. The film-maker chooses from an infinite number of possible images and combines them together. In that sense, film-makers invent cinema’s language every time they make use of it. Combining gestures and objects, which have a function in actuality, with images from dreams or memory, a semantic field is constructed in the moment of invention. All these images or smaller units come together in new relationships to form the language of cinema. 

But not every element that makes up that language is considered equal. The functional images of gestures and objects acquire meaning in relationship to the subjective images from inner life, images from dreams and memory. Inner experiences enter into a semantic relationship with those images that convey a more widely recognised meaning. Most importantly, Pasolini identifies the stylema, or the images that acquire their meaning only in relationship to other film images. Over time, stylemas become conventions of film. But before they constitute the grammar of good editing, they exist as stylistic inventions of film-makers, and in that sense, according to Pasolini, stylemas are pregrammatical. Stylemas exist before language takes shape and acquires rules. From stylemas emerge the language of birds.

Stylemas are the true mark of poetic film-making, but Pasolini writes that there is no pure poetry in film, and no pure prose, only films that skew one way or the other. His thoughts on The Cinema of Poetry, were delivered first at a film festival in Pesaro, Italy, and were later published with the script for The Hawks and the Sparrows.9 Given this pairing, one might ask what the connection is between the cinema of poetry and the style of this film, which departs so drastically from the realist style Pasolini had previously contributed to.

In The Cinema of Poetry, Pasolini argues that the poetic character of a film is based on how radically the film engages the signifying practice, or the practice of invention, and not the degree to which the film expresses the inner lives of artists or their invented characters. Pasolini also made this argument with the film The Hawks and the Sparrows, which invents a language by combining images of popular comedy, newsreels, religious allegory, and road movies, but abandons the style that had come to define art cinema of the time. Addressing the audience at the film festival in Pesaro, Pasolini pointed out that these new styles of art cinema were present in most of the films shown, and recognisable by the use of a few characteristic features.


Furthermore, he offered a critique of this style, which he identified as an attempt at the free indirect voice through the free indirect point-of-view shot.10 By finding ways to conflate the view of the artist with that of the character, the free indirect makes difference visible. It shows one point of view becoming the other. In literature, this difference is demonstrated through the use of a character’s dialect or language, something Pasolini explored in his own writing, but in film this demonstration of difference can only take place through stylistic devices. By 1965, the use of the hand-held point-of-view shot had become part of cinematic language to express the alienated consciousness of post-war, European life. So what Pasolini called for was a radical invention that would restore the pre-grammatical nature of the stylema, and thereby maximise the potential of cinema to invent its own language through a signifying practice.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze made his famous foray into film theory on the back of Pasolini by citing the director’s essay on the cinema of poetry and building on his observations about a free indirect style in film.11 Deleuze promotes the argument that the free-indirect was successful in the neo and new movements of European cinema after the Second World War, and thus he overlooks Pasolini’s criticism of these styles. I would argue that Deleuze misunderstood Pasolini’s film theory, perhaps wilfully, as a renunciation of language, but Pasolini was more of a heretic than an outsider to linguistics. In other words, Pasolini hypothesised that birds were quite capable of learning to use language and especially adept at inventing their own.


One of the earliest film theorists to redeem the point Pasolini struggled to make, even before Deleuzes misappropriation, was film scholar Teresa de Lauretis.12 She argued that there was something useful in the comparison of images to language, so long as one understood cinema as a process of imaging and not as a static system. While Deleuze was interested in shaking off some of the structural-linguistic and Marxist baggage of Pasolini’s text, De Lauretis was trying to redeem something from it that had been missed by the earlier critics. De Lauretis argues that Pasolini’s theory of film as a signifying practice should rejoin perception studies if we want to understand how film acts as an instrument of critique. It is not by claiming a special status for film, or the birds, as outsiders to language, but rather by observing how film-makers represent difference, how they invent a new language that is more or less the product of radical invention, a radical poiesis.

But do birds really have language and what exactly does that mean? An ethologist, one who studies animal behaviour, might define language as a two-way communication system to effect and respond to change, with little concern for the mind in the machine.13 On the other hand, a linguist or semiologist in the Saussurian tradition might look for an intention behind the production of signs. Some recent practitioners of cognitive ethology have also been interested in the question of whether a bird that talks means what it says, and thus cognitive ethologists have developed a theory of mind to complement their theory of behaviour.14 

Just as Pasolini, Metz, and Eco struggled to figure out what units made up the language of cinema, cognitive ethologists have also struggled to rethink what can really be considered language.15 If a bird can learn words, can we say that it knows language? What counts as a sentence, a conversation, or discourse? Is there semantic meaning behind each bird call? 


If we define language as a signifying practice, subject to radical invention, we might look to the way animals use signs, keeping in mind that a sign is really nothing more than a sign-function or an absent sign in a practice of semantic meaning making made up of images from inner and outer experience.16 

The first study to conclude that birds could learn to use categories and labels, or something like words, to represent the world was based on the ability of an African Grey Parrot to identify the colour, shape, and matter of various objects.17 The bird not only could use labels such as blue, and paper, to identify a rectangular blue cut-out, but also could answer questions that required knowledge of the categories colourshape, and matter. So, for instance, when presented with a set of objects and asked questions such as which shape here is orange? the correct answer requires not only knowing what orange is but also producing the correct shape or matter word from an acquired vocabulary, like a limited storehouse of language. The ability to complete this kind of recursive task suggests that the bird must understand the labels involved well enough, at least, to use them.

But cognitive ethologists, including the one who carried out the study with the African Grey Parrot, are careful to point out that the use of categories and labels, even for the purposes of two-way communication, does not prove that birds have language. Rather, it simply suggests that the bird has mastered a set of rules, a bit like playing chess with a computer.

After all, a competing definition of language holds that it is a mental and cognitive ability – in other words, the thing in one’s head, not the labels, rules, or uses to which it is put.18 A determination about the bird’s ability to use language in all its complexity, then, would have to include a determination of whether the bird systematically arranges its thoughts in terms of categories and labels with the intention of being understood.

The question of intention can be reframed by asking whether birds use semantics in a significant way. To conclude that birds are using strong semantics, cognitive ethologists would have to deduce that the bird itself has a theory of mind – in other words, that the bird not only has thoughts, but has thoughts about what others are thinking.19

One way that this has been tested is with something called the audience effect.20 Ethologists testing the alarm calls of birds found birds did not always produce the same call, but only in the presence of other birds. This audience effect suggests – although it doesn’t definitely prove – that birds produce an alarm call with some awareness of another mind that may be on the receiving end. Does this allow us to conclude that birds can use language because they can use labels and because they sometimes consider the audience when using those labels? If the notion of language is limited to the known systems and uses of human language, then perhaps the answer is a qualified one. Yes, the birds can use language, but not very much.

More importantly, what ethologists and linguists might learn about language from Pasolini is that language should not be defined by its system, nor by its use as a communicative tool, but rather by its degree of stylistic invention, its radical poiesis. The question we should be asking is how a bird invents a way to represent the intentions, beliefs, and desires of others. How does it make this difference visible?


By defining language as a process of invention that represents the intentions, beliefs, and desires of others, we return to the question of birds and movies. Combining Pasolini’s understanding of the language of moving images with the ability of birds to use language not only suggests that birds make movies but also that cognitive ability and knowledge is a process of making difference visible. The significance of this for my purposes has been to see how the figure of the artist is able to make difference visible while shaking off the assumption that art is outside language. The crow in Pasolinis film may represent the dogmatic intellectual, but Pasolinis true crow is better understood as the heretic who makes difference visible from within.


1 See Maurizio Viano, A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

Barnett Newman, Painters Painting, directed by Emile De Antonio (1973).

Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The Written Language of Reality’, in Heretical Empiricism, ed. by Louise K. Barnett, trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), pp. 197–222 (p. 198).

See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, trans. by Wade Baskin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972).

See Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

See Pasolini, ‘The Written Language of Reality’, in Heretical Empiricism, 197–222.

See Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).

Pee Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The Cinema of Poetry’, in Heretical Empiricism, 167–86.


10 Ibid., 175–76.

11 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1986), p. 73; Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1989), p. 148. 

12 Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

13 B. F. Skinner was an early ethologist promoting ‘behaviourism’ whose ‘Skinner box’ influenced W. V. O. Quine’s philosophy of language. For a discussion of this intellectual history, see Donald R. Griffin, ‘Progress Toward a Cognitive Ethology’, in Cognitive Ethology: The Minds of Other Animals; Essays in Honor of Donald R. Griffin, ed. by Carolyn A. Ristau (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991), pp. 3–17.

14 See David Premack and Guy Woodruff, ‘Does the Chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind?’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1.4 (1978), 515–26.

15 See David Premack, Gavagai! Or the Future History of the Animal Language Controversy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986).

16 Eco, A Theory of Semiotics.

17 Irene Pepperberg, The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

18 See Donald R. Griffin, Animal Minds: Beyond Cognition to Consciousness (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

19 See Robert M. Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney, ‘Meaning, Reference, and Intentionality in the Natural Vocalizations of Monkeys’, in Language and Communication: Comparative Perspectives, ed. by Herbert L. Roitblat, Louis M. Herman, and Paul E. Nachtigall (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993), pp. 195–215. 

20 Marcel Gyger, Stephen J. Karakashian, and Peter Marler, ‘Avian Alarm Calling: Is there an Audience Effect?’, Animal Behavior, 34.5 (1986), 1570–72.


If film is a language, can birds make movies? 
An essay and two heretical descriptive systems

Tim Ridlen